Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Summer reading: "Columbine" by Dave Cullen

One of the things I love most about vacation is long stretches of uninterrupted time to read. Books. At home, even when I have several days off in a row (as I did last week), I always have a million and one distractions (and a pile of unread magazines, which are the bane of dh's existence) to keep me occupied -- so my gargantuan "to read" pile of books is often sadly neglected, or at least very slow to diminish.

Happily, I managed to read FIVE (count 'em!) books in the two weeks I spent at my parents' house recently. And each one moved me to tears, at least once. Nearly all of them had some connection to grief and loss themes of some sort.

Every now & then, I like to dive into a good true crime tale. "Columbine" by Dave Cullen is one of the best I've read -- meticulously researched and highly readable. Cullen is a freelance journalist who has written extensively about the 1999 school shootings at Columbine High School in Colorado over the past 10 years. He delves into the teenaged killers' psyches, and traces their movements in the months, days and minutes leading up to their rampage, and their suicides. He shatters many of the myths that have sprung up around the tragedy and exposes how the local police knew much more than they let on about the killers prior to the event -- and tried to cover it up.

Grief & loss permeate the Columbine story. The different ways people grieve and how their stories have played out over the past 10 years, the role of the media in amplifying the grief felt -- even the disenfranchised grief of the killers' families -- are all explored here.

The character in the story who touched me (and, I suspect, the author) the most was the principal, Frank DeAngelis. The day after the tragedy, he was asked to speak at a gathering of more than 850 students and parents. He was uncertain of what to say, and feeling horrendously guilty that this had happened in his school. As he rose to take the microphone, the crowd leaped to its feet and began cheering wildly. He staggered, and broke down in sobs. I was in tears just reading about it, about his unwavering devotion to his students, and how the tragedy has affected his life over the past 10 years.

Columbine happened less than a year after my daughter was stillborn. One of my memories of that time was reading an opinion piece in the newspaper, in which the writer scorned the rush to provide students with grief counselling. I believe he suggested that the love & support of friends and family members should be sufficient to carry the bereaved through.

Maybe -- in a perfect world. To me, he was missing the point. It's often BECAUSE family members & friends don't understand what grieving people go through that grief counselling and support groups are so valuable. If it's not apparent immediately after the loss occurs, it often becomes so in the weeks & months that follow, as support dwindles and the bereaved are encouraged to "move on" with their lives.

Coming soon (I hope, lol): some thoughts on three other books I read during my vacation -- The Time Traveler's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger; My Sister's Keeper by Jodi Picoult and The Girls from Ames by Jeffrey Zaslow. And, on Aug. 17, another Barren B*tches Book Tour, featuring Moose by blogger Stephanie Klein, which was another of my vacation reads.


  1. Thanks for that really nice review of my book.

    You gave it a really thoughtful read.

    I'm sorry about the stillborn child. Man, that must be really hard. I shuddered when I read that part.

    The most moving person in the book for me was Patrick Ireland, but Frank DeAngelis was right up there, too. They both gave me a lot of hope.

    I can't believe the columnist was against grief counseling. Good lord. Where do you even start on something like that? Luckily, people didn't listen to him. The big problem is getting people who need help to GET it.

    I understand the resistance, though. I was writing about people suffering with PTSD and often ignoring the warning signs, and as I did so, I twice developed secondary PTSD and ignored the warning signs. Doh!

    Anyway, there's more info at my Columbine site, too.



  2. Thanks for stopping by, Dave! (The power of the Internet!)

    Patrick was certainly a memorable figure too. You remind me one should never presume to be a mindreader. : )

  3. I read an excellent review of Columbine and interview with the author (Oh! Hi, Author!) on Salon.com and can't wait to read the book.

    I'm looking forward to reading about your thoughts on My Sister's Keeper and The Time Traveler's Wife, both of which I read for book club in the past 2 years. I blogged about My Sister's Keeper last year.

  4. I love when you suggest books, I'm going to see if the library has this one. I joined a book club recently and all the books have to be about either (or all) sex, drugs and rock n' roll so suggestions welcome!

  5. Thanks for your comment Loribeth! I have read the Time Traveller's Wife and absolutely loved it. The movie starts tomorrow and I can't wait to go. I think I'll go with some of my neighbor ladies next week.

  6. Hi Ellen, and LoriBeth (what a cool name) and everyone else.

    It's nice to see so many people still interested in books.

    I really enjoyed doing the Salon interview. Joan Walsh has been promoted several times over the last ten years, and is now Editor in Chief there--and deservedly so. But in 1999, she was my direct editor when I wrote most of the early material that made this book come to be. What a wonderful person to discuss it with.

  7. Ellen/Dave, I read the Salon interview -- great stuff -- she asked some great questions.

    Dave, I love books. When I was a kid, I wanted to write books. I went to journalism school and wound up a corporate hack, lol. But I still appreciate good writing! One of the main reasons I started this blog was so I could take part in the online book club discussions hosted by the Stirrup Queens blog. We've had some great discussions there.

    Monique, lol. I'll have a look at my bookshelves & see if I can give you some recommendations. ; )

    Soapchick, I'm planning to see the movie this weekend too.

  8. On Nov. 21, 2008, the Harris and Klebold parents were sent the same letter requesting cooperation. "Your stories have yet to be fully told, and I view your help as an issue of historical significance," it said. "In 10 years, there have been no major, mainstream books on Columbine. This will be the first, and it may be the only one." The letter came not from Mr. Cullen but from Jeff Kass, whose Columbine: A True Crime Story, published by the small Ghost Road Press, preceded Columbine by a couple of weeks.

    "Mr. Kass, whose tough account is made even sadder by the demise of The Rocky Mountain News in which his Columbine coverage appeared, has also delivered an intensive Columbine overview. Some of the issues he raises and information he digs up go unnoticed by Mr. Cullen." --Janet Maslin, New York Times USA TODAY

    "A decade after the most dramatic school massacre in American history, Jeff Kass applies his considerable reporting talents to exploring the mystery of how two teens could have planned and carried out such gruesome acts without their own family and best friends knowing about it. Actually, there were important clues, but they were missed or downgraded both by those who knew the boys best and by public officials who came in contact with them. An engrossing and cautionary tale for everyone who cares about how to prevent kids from going bad." -----Ted Gest, President, Criminal Justice Journalists

  9. How cool Dave Cullen commented on your review!

    I read this book, too, often with my heart in my gullet. I was shocked by how inaccurate the media reporting was at the time, especially what was being said about the "trench coat mafia".